Dork’s Top 50 Albums of 2023: Caroline Polachek: “I’m excited for a fresh, clean new world in 2024.”

Caroline Polachek’s ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ is a pop odyssey that marries chaos with clarity, weaving a tapestry of maximalist soundscapes and intimate confessions. It’s also our 2023 Album of the Year.

Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: David Brandon Geeting.

Every now and then, a video of Caroline Polachek screaming at geese in a park does the rounds online. The clip, also shared by Caroline on TikTok, was part of a set she recorded for an A.G. Cook album release Zoom party in 2020 and has since seemingly made its way into the bridge of her latest drop, ‘Dang’. 

The single arrives at the end of a magnificent year for Caroline, which has seen her bonkers take on pop go stratospheric. Her second album as Caroline Polachek (seventh overall, she mentions) ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ came on Valentine’s Day, later than intended and following a lengthy campaign that began in July 2021, but ended up being more than worth the wait.

By the time it dropped, she’d toured her breakthrough album, 2019’s ‘Pang’, supported pop titan Dua Lipa on her massive ‘Future Nostalgia’ world tour, scored a TikTok hit with ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’, and released five vastly different singles; both her profile and the anticipation had grown considerably.

“Looking back on it all,” Caroline reflects on a bright LA morning, “I’m just extremely grateful that I was able to make this album that’s really kind of nonsensical, and sprawling and eclectic, and not only to have fans ride with me through it all and really get it but also, it feels like the album keeps unfolding in different ways, in the visual realm and live and in the fan culture, so I’m just very grateful.”

Nonsensical and eclectic, it certainly is. Full of curveballs, ‘Desire…’ is sonically interesting, featuring both tracks with huge diva choruses and ones with no clear melodic through line, instruments rarely brought into a pop record, like bagpipes and the balalaika, sparse, dark ballads and bright, euphoric anthems, multiple invented words, and Caroline’s offering to the world of ‘scorny’ (scary and horny) songs; ‘Desire…’ is Caroline’s magnum opus, and the final result seems to have surprised her as much as us listeners.

“It always has a mind of its own. Always. I began both ‘Pang’ and ‘Desire…’ with a completely different prompt for what I wanted the album to be than where it ended up. I’ve done this enough times to know that it’s not going to behave; it’s not going to stick to the memo. And that’s the exciting thing about being an artist, too, this constant surprise of where the work leads you.”

The journey to creating it began long ago, some of it even during the ‘Pang’ era, but it was primarily made on the road, with producer Danny L Harle popping out sporadically to work on it. The creative partnership began during the ‘Pang’ sessions, and by ‘Desire…’ had developed into an instinctive relationship.

“This album was made under quite stressful circumstances because I was touring ‘Pang’ while I was making ‘Desire’,” says Caroline of the album recording. “And so the process of doing sessions, for the most part, was very fractured, and time was very, very precious. There wasn’t that much. So, pretty much every song made the album.

“I think the fact that I wasn’t necessarily experimenting with collaborators meant that Danny and I could just get right down to business. We were having these long-form conversations about what we’re interested in about music and about texture and sound, and that kept things feeling cohesive, even though we’d only get to see each other once every six weeks or something to work together, we’d sort of always pick up where we left off. So it was very fractured but also very tight at the same time.”

Towards the end of Caroline’s show at London’s Eventim Apollo, which took place the same day the album was released, she took a moment to shout out Danny and gave a heartfelt speech about potential, how she felt we were all full of it and it only takes one person to bring that out (“I’ve only said that once and it was on stage in London and I was like crying as I said it,” she recalls). It’s the overarching theme that runs through the record, but, as with everything Caroline creates, not in the way you’d think.

“I really did come to this album quite empty-handed and sort of let what I was thinking about and speaking about with Danny at the time steer the hand a bit. Potential, really, was the thread that flowed throughout it, and I started seeing potential not just in the way we use it in this sort of workplace environment like, oh, she’s full of potential; I was thinking about it more in this, I believe it’s the ancient Roman use of the word, potentia, which describes all the things that are sort of embedded within us, but not just within us, within all things. And that could be the potential for disaster, the potential for a seed to turn into a plant…”

Having created the record within the confines of touring and doing so in a world breaking free of a global pandemic, that naturally permeated the record’s content. With that, the meaning of ‘desire’ changed from the obvious, too. 

“I was thinking about desire as this force that gives our lives meaning and guides us into the future as the sort of antidote to nihilism, and depression, and even the kind of flattened digital landscape that we’d all dissolved into during the pandemic, this sort of desire to exist in a physical world. That this world that’s full of physical potential was the landscape upon which the album takes place; fertile and unpredictable and vital.”

“I was thinking about desire as this force that gives our lives meaning”

Caroline Polachek

It gave way to blind optimism without ever feeling far removed from reality; nonchalance in the face of danger on ‘Smoke’, a track that developed in front of an audience as it morphed over almost three years, and the endlessness and immortality presented on SOPHIE tribute ‘I Believe’. Then there’s the joy of reunion on the only collaborative track here, ‘Fly To You’, with Grimes and Dido. 

While Caroline often pops up on other artists’ records – Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens are repeat collaborators – ‘Fly To You’ is the first time she’s brought them into her own world. Going to the artists’ houses to write and record their verses for the track (she even snagged Dido’s handwritten lyrics from the session and plans to frame them) was a special, personal experience for Caroline.

“I think Dido has touched so many people in such a healing and elegant way throughout her entire career, and just like any kind of cultural cycle, because her music is so emblematic of the early 2000s, I think it maybe became easy to see her within the kind of throwbackerry that we were all living through in the last couple of years, but I think that lens always dissolves.

“It was an incredible experience getting to work with both Dido and Grimes one-on-one; both of them were transparently game to work on the song, and not just that, but to do it in a very personal way without a bunch of team in between us. But especially getting to work with these women who are both mothers as well and actually get to speak about their experience of their own sovereignty and romanticism and their own inner world, I think it’s an extremely rare perspective in music, and so it was very meaningful to me to get to be in conversation with both of them in that way.”

Caroline’s own legacy might just be the thing that made ‘Desire…’ so special, too. 15 years since she released her first full-length as part of indie-pop duo Chairlift, she’s lived many musical lives, putting out experimental records under the monikers Ramona Lisa and her initials CEP before wiping the slate clean and releasing ‘Pang’ in her own name. But for all that time, it’s only recently that she’s connected on such a scale.

“I’ve gotten the chance to study a lot of different aspects of myself throughout all the different iterations and projects that I’ve gotten to have over the years. There’s a lot of DNA from this album that can be traced back, not just to ‘Pang’ but to projects I’ve had before, like Ramona Lisa and Chairlift, where I learned so much about instrumental arrangement and how to scoot around grooves as a vocalist, or how to perform live or how to incorporate theatricality and graphic design in various ways. So in some ways, I feel like it’s not so much that this project is better than the others; it’s just this is a culmination.”

Caroline seems to view everything as part of a cycle; at the start of our chat, she notes the year feels aligned to 2013, and the year she’s spent devoted to the album is wrapping up nicely. It colours the album too; melodies that appear in ‘Pretty In Possible’ pop back up in ‘Smoke’ (the second and penultimate track), so it makes perfect sense that the track she’s released to wrap up the album cycle was made at the start of it (and, of course, that it would feature a clip recorded during the pandemic following an album about it).

“I was looking back on the ‘Pang’ campaign and how good it felt to have ‘Breathless’ [The Corrs cover] be this single that I could release after the album to work with all the energy that had been created during the album campaign, but to do something kind of fun and unexpected with it. I knew going into this album cycle that I wanted to do that again but in a very different way. So ‘Dang’ is one of the older songs from this album cycle, but I knew quite early on in the process that this was going to be my post-album single. Part of the cycle, of course, but just that it would be, rhythmically, its own punctuation at the end.”

So, as the ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ cycle comes to a close, where does Caroline go next? She mentions she’s already got an internal prompt for the next record, but with time running out (we have 15 minutes chatting with Caroline at the end of her whirlwind year), she still leaves us guessing.

“I think it’s leading me to a whole new blank slate. I feel so satisfied with how I’ve gotten to really explore all the nooks and crannies and trapdoors within the world of this album. I feel very ready to go learn and listen to music; I just want to go listen to music for a few months before even beginning anything, but I’m excited for a fresh, clean new world in 2024.”

Taken from the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Dork, out now.


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